December Solstice Explained

Tomorrow, December 21, will be the official first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. In astronomy, the winter solstice is the moment when the earth is at a point in its orbit where one hemisphere is most inclined away from the sun. (Since seasons of the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere are opposites, the winter solstice of one hemisphere is the summer solstice of the other.)

In the United States, Canada, and Europe, December 21 is the longest night of the year since it has the least daylight and the most darkness – and it’s also pretty cold at this time of year. Many festivals of light take place in northern countries during this period, often consisting of feasts with candles and bonfires.

The Yuletide holiday began as a Roman festival at the winter solstice when large bonfires were lit in an effort to scare off evil spirits and attempt to bring back the sun. Our modern Christmas celebrations incorporate some of the old pagan traditions such as Yule logs, candle lighting, bell ringing, clove apples, spiced cider, evergreens, mistletoe, holly and ivy.

This year, the day of the Winter Solstice also happens to be the end-date of a 5125-year-long cycle in the Mayan calendar. This has led some to believe that a cataclysmic or transformative event will occur on December 21, 2012. An apocalyptic view of this date as the end of the world or of human civilization has been spread by many sites on the Internet – which led NASA to release this statement:

Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. The world will not end in 2012 … and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012… however, it will be another winter solstice.

The NASA website has even devoted a page of Frequently Asked Questions to this topic.

Additional Information:

NASA – Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End

NASA – The Great 2012 Doomsday Scare – This website delves into all the rumors about the 2012 doomsday hoax, and then explains in great detail how none of it lines up with real science.

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